American distance running ace John Kelly won the Montane Spine Race in the UK early on Thursday, one of the world’s most brutal foot races. The 431km race travels up from England into Scotland, in the dead of winter, by the Pennine Way. Participants this year were exposed to horrific conditions as Storm Brendan battered the course.

Kelly rose to fame when he finished the Barkley Marathon in 2017. The annual 100-mile (161km) Tennessee race is one of the hardest on earth and years can go by without anyone finishing the course. When Kelly returned to Barkley in 2019, no one, including Kelly, finished.

Kelly finished the Spine Race in 87 hours, 53 minutes and 57 seconds. The rest of the field was still on the course at time of publishing.

“Everything hurts. Did the last seven miles take longer than the first 35 miles on that section?” Kelly said at the finish line. “Up there, your body just decides it stops sometime.

A mountain hut near the end was the last refuge from the cold, and Kelly had to choose between pushing on and getting colder or having a break.

“I could have probably gone past the mountain hut [near the end] and kept running but I was cold and didn’t want to risk it. Once I got warmed up, everything that was numb was no longer numb.”

“One of the climbs, just before the mountain rescue hut, I turned and saw [a] head torch bearing down on me,” said Kelly. He said he assumed the light came from rival Jayson Cavill, who had been in second place. “I kept checking and asking ‘where did this come from?’ I freaked out, and I started all-out racing again, and I kept looking behind asking ‘how does he keep gaining on me’ and it turned out to be just a guy who’d run up to see me. He brought me hot water, it was really nice, but I didn’t know until then that Jayson had DNF’d [dropped out].”

The Spine Race was thrown into the news last year when Jasmin Paris, a Scottish runner, beat all the men and shattered the course record by more than 12 hours, finishing in 83:12:23.